In-N-Out Burger’s refusal to act as COVID ‘vaccination police’ may be start of bigger battle

The Associated Press

The In-N-Out hamburger chain is sizzling mad after San Francisco shut down its indoor dining for refusing to check customers’ vaccination status.

The company’s Fisherman’s Wharf location — its only one in San Francisco — was temporarily shut by the Department of Public Health on Oct. 14.

Authorities said it refused to bar clients who couldn’t show proof of vaccination to dine indoors, as required by a city mandate that took effect Aug. 20.

In-N-Out ignored repeated warnings to enforce the vaccination rule, the department said, calling the mandate a matter of public health to keep COVID-19 from spreading.

“We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government,” Arnie Wensinger, the chain’s chief legal and business officer, said in a statement.

Wednesday, the chain found itself in trouble with yet another Bay Area county over its failure to verify the vaccination cards of people choosing to dine-in with their double-doubles, shakes and fries.

A spokesperson for Contra Costa County's environmental health division said that the department received repeated complaints from residents saying that workers at the Pleasant Hill location were not verifying vaccine cards as required for in-person dining.

Karl Fischer told the San Francisco Chronicle that enforcement officers visited that particular restaurant three times, resulting in a warning and two fines totaling $750. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In-N-Out earlier had said it considered the enforcement requirement an intrusive and offensive measure that would force it to discriminate against customers.

The location has since reopened but without indoor dining.

In-N-Out was the only San Francisco restaurant that was closed for violating the mandate.

“Vaccines remain our best tool to fight this disease and come out of the pandemic,” a statement from the San Francisco Department of Public Health said. “Vaccination is particularly important in a public indoor setting where groups of people are gathering and removing their masks, factors that make it easier for the virus to spread. That is why San Francisco requires proof of vaccination for indoor dining.”

The new In-N-Out Burger fast food restaurant in the Sherwood Mall on Pacific and Yokuts avenues in Stockton is now open.

In-N-Out stance could signal larger pushback from businesses 

As cities up and down the state increasingly move to require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations in an assortment of public places, the California chain has become an unlikely flashpoint, the Los Angeles Times reported.

It’s unclear whether In-N-Out will ultimately prove a harbinger for a larger pushback from businesses that don’t want to screen their patrons’ inoculation status. But the issue isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

Communities across California have imposed a number of vaccine-verification requirements in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus and encouraging more people to get vaccinated.

But the rules are a patchwork, differing from county to county and city to city. And enforcement is still another issue.

Contra Costa County, which includes East San Francisco Bay cities such as Richmond and Walnut Creek, has passed rules allowing indoor diners to either show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test.

But none of the In-N-Out locations in Contra Costa County has publicly come into conflict with public health agencies.

In Los Angeles County, though, the rules are less rigorous. Public health officials highly recommend — but do not require — that restaurants check indoor dining patrons for proof of full COVID-19 vaccination.

During the first weekend that L.A. County mandated some indoor businesses to verify the COVID-19 vaccination status of their customers, health inspectors didn’t issue a single citation for noncompliance. But they did provide additional training to staff members at nearly one-fifth of the sites they visited.

Conservative media outlets and politicians have since stated their support for In-N-Out, saying people who support "freedom" should buy food from or go support any nearby locations. The hashtag #DoNotComply has since been trending on Twitter.

Founded in 1948 and owned by heiress Lynsi Snyder, In-N-Out has been at the center of controversy before, similar to Chick-fil-A, for donating to the Republican Party, the New York Times has previously reported. 

Wensinger said that the San Francisco location “properly and clearly” posted signs telling patrons about the local vaccine requirements but that public health officials told employees they had to “actively intervene” and demand proof of vaccine and photo identification from every customer.

If customers couldn’t provide the proof and an ID, they were to be turned away, the In-N-Out executive said.

“As a company, In-N-Out Burger strongly believes in the highest form of customer service and to us that means serving all customers who visit us and making all customers feel welcome.”

Wensinger called San Francisco’s mandate unreasonable, invasive and unsafe for employees to “segregate customers” into groups who can and can’t be served.

“We fiercely disagree with any government dictate that forces a private company to discriminate against customers who choose to patronize their business,” he said. “This is clear governmental overreach and is intrusive, improper and offensive.”

USA TODAY and The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.